Life

Iowa City church honoring Mr. Rogers' legacy with weekend series

'Won't You Be My Neighbor?'

Lynn Johnson photo

Fred Rogers (right) shares a lighthearted moment with Mr. McFeely, the delivery man portrayed by David Newell in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The beloved show is featured in the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which will be screened Thursday night at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Iowa City during the weekend program, “A Neighbor Just Like You”: The Music & Message of Fred Rogers. Admission is free.
Lynn Johnson photo Fred Rogers (right) shares a lighthearted moment with Mr. McFeely, the delivery man portrayed by David Newell in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The beloved show is featured in the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which will be screened Thursday night at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Iowa City during the weekend program, “A Neighbor Just Like You”: The Music & Message of Fred Rogers. Admission is free.
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For three decades, Fred Rogers slipped into a cardigan and slipped into our hearts.

The gentle philosopher invited generations of viewers into his television neighborhood of working-class friends like delivery man Mr. McFeely and Handyman Negri — then onto a trolley for a ride into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, ruled by King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday.

Along the way, the real-life ordained minister would impart lessons about self-worth and belonging, as well as tough topics ranging from the death of his goldfish to divorce, anger and war.

“‘Won’t you be my neighbor?’ It’s an invitation for somebody to be close to you,” Rogers, who died in 2003, says in the documentary bearing his catch phrase. “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”

That 2018 film touched lifelong fan Jeff Charis-Carlson so deeply that he wanted to share it by inviting anyone and everyone into his neighborhood at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Iowa City.

FilmScene in downtown Iowa City showed the documentary last summer, encouraging people to see it with their neighbors. So St. Andrew parishioners flocked to the indie art house and “made up about half the people in the audience for that screening,” said Charis-Carlson, 48, of Iowa City.

“We joke that Mr. Rogers is the most beloved and best-known Presbyterian minister in U.S. history — only because most people don’t realize he was a Presbyterian minister.”

The group found the documentary so inspiring that they started discussing ways to spin that focus on Mr. Rogers into an adult education class or some special services to highlight his life and legacy. Shortly thereafter, Charis-Carlson discovered Maxwell King’s 2018 biography, “The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers,” and that further whet his appetite for honoring the many layers of the man who also was an accomplished musician and social advocate.

PLANNING SESSIONS

Thinking the logical step would be to have a service that included the church’s in-house jazz musicians and choir, Charis-Carlson hit the internet and found the album “Beyond the Neighborhood: The Music of Fred Rogers,” by Kevin Bales and Keri Johnsrud. He contacted Johnsrud, a Chicago-area jazz vocalist, to see if she had any printed music his church musicians could use. The answer was no, but Johnsrud, a 1999 University of Iowa graduate, was coming to Iowa City the week after Easter, and said she would love to have her jazz quartet perform at the church.

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That offer struck a chord, and soon Charis-Carlson was inviting biographer King to make his first trip to Iowa City to participate in what has evolved into a three-day celebration, from Thursday through Saturday, April 27.

Thanks to donations, fundraising efforts and support from the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization, admission is free, but donations will be accepted. Any profits will be funneled to the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County.

“Suddenly, instead of having a one-off concert, we now have a whole weekend refocused on what Fred Rogers has to offer from a religious standpoint, but also, more from a communitywide social standpoint,” event organizer Charis-Carlson said.

“There are things that sparked everyone’s interest in that documentary last year,” he said, “and with the biography right afterward, we’re still the same politically fractured society that’s as much in need of what Fred Rogers has to say now than we ever were when he was alive.”

Activities begin Thursday with a screening of the film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the church sanctuary, 140 Gathering Place Lane, Iowa City. Popcorn, tissues and child care will be provided.

At 6:30 p.m. Friday, The Keri Johnsrud & Kevin Bales Quartet will perform its new jazz arrangements of Rogers’ songs, including “It’s You I Like,” “You Are Special” and “The Weekend Song.” The album also includes music from his two earlier TV shows and the operettas he wrote.

The musicians will return from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday to conduct a free master class on jazz arrangements.

The series wraps up with a conversation with biographer King from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. next Saturday, April 27. He also will offer up some perspective during Friday’s concert. The next evening, he will focus on two pivotal issues in Rogers’ life and work, augmented by film clips illustrating their back stories.

REFLECTIONS

“We’re hoping people will learn in some ways to reconnect with the message Mr. Rogers shared with them, to become inspired to be the kind of neighbors Mr. Rogers always told them they could be,” said Charis-Carlson, whose married name is a reflection of those values.

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A child of the ’70s, he remembers being very excited when his mother took him to see Rogers in a live performance in the Chicago area.

Fast-forward to 1998, when Charis-Carlson and his fiancee were trying to figure out what their last name would be after they got married. While visiting a local bookstore, Charis-Carlson saw the Esquire magazine article that would become the basis for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the Rogers biopic starring Tom Hanks, headed for theaters in November.

“The article mentioned that Rogers had the word ‘charis’ written on his wall — the Greek word for ‘grace’ and ‘beauty.’ There’s just something about that,” Charis-Carlson said, adding that he didn’t expect to see an article about Rogers in Esquire. “I also was not expecting it to affect me so emotionally as it did in that moment.”

The couple decided that instead of combining their last names, they would add “charis” to both of their names. “Suddenly, I became Jeff Charis-Carlson as result of reading that article.”

He hadn’t given the television icon “much thought” before that, except for watching the speech Rogers gave when receiving the Emmy for lifetime achievement in 1997, and then “paying close attention” after Rogers died in 2003.

“Watching the documentary last year, a lot of those feelings were rekindled,” Charis-Carlson said.

“So even though every time I write my name, there’s a story to be brought back to, it’s only been in the last year and putting this (weekend) together, that I’ve come to really appreciate the uniqueness that he offered the world while he was alive, and how important it is not to ask the question, ‘What would Mr. Rogers do,’ but to ask the question, ‘What should we do, based on Mr. Rogers’ example and teachings.’”

KERI JOHNSRUD

A stroll down Memory Lane led Johnsrud and collaborator Kevin Bales to their Fred Rogers recording project.

“We were just talking one day about children’s television programs that we watched growing up,” said Johnsrud, 42, a native of Conrad, just north of Marshalltown. “Come to find out that both of us really had a deep love for Fred Rogers. Kevin was a little bit more aware of his musical capabilities than I was. I just knew him as the children’s television host.”

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Bales pointed out that Rogers wrote a lot of the music on the program, which piqued Johnsrud’s interest.

“We thought it would be kind of a cool idea to explore that music and see what else (he wrote), and possibly record it,” she said, and in the process, “uncover something cool about a gentleman (who) isn’t really known for his songwriting skills.”

The timing was right, with the two movies about his life bringing him back into the public eye. Her research also allowed her to see the show through new eyes.

“He was just a wonderful human being and definitely had a lot to offer,” she said. “The messages that he instilled in us as children are incredibly relevant to today. You can go back and watch those programs and still get something out of it.”

Bales, who lives in Atlanta, Ga., did the bulk of the arranging for their album, which was released in 2018 on Rogers’ birthday, March 20.

“Beyond the Neighborhood” features jazz arrangements skewed more for adults, but appropriate to share with their children. Johnsrud has had positive feedback from listeners, who say it brought back memories, yet doesn’t sound like children’s music. Mr. McFeely (David Newell) and Handyman Negri (Joe Negri) have been supportive of the project, as well, which pleases her.

Even though the music originally was geared toward children’s ears with a measure of simplicity, it has an underlying complexity.

“When we started digging into his actual compositions, we realized that although they may sound simple and very sweet, a lot of chord changes and his arrangements are actually quite sophisticated. ...

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“He was a great composer, and a beautiful message any way you look at it,” and going through his music gave her “a sense of peace and a sense of comfort,” she said.

“He’s a great example for kindness and for love in this world, that we so need. He was just a beautiful soul, and I try and think about him in my everyday life,” wondering what he might do or how he might react in any given situation.

MAXWELL KING

After spending 30 years in journalism, reaching the upper echelon as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer before retiring in 1998, Maxwell King needed a few lessons in moving from the fast lane to the slower lane. He’s not quite there yet, but Rogers continues to be a driving force in biographer King’s quest for calm, as his third attempt at retiring is coming in June.

“In the newspaper world, you’re not necessarily rewarded for patience, you’re rewarded for action,” King, 74, said by phone from his office at the Pittsburgh Foundation. “All those years of living a fast-paced professional life, I was very susceptible when I started digging into Fred Rogers’ life — susceptible to learning from him about pacing, about slowness, about patience, about living in the moment, about paying attention to things as they are and not always thinking about what’s coming up next.

“I think I got a real personal benefit from being so deeply engaged with his life and his story for a number of years. I think my wife wouldn’t describe me as exceptionally patient now, but I think she’d say I’m a lot more patient and well-paced than I was before. So I got a great personal appreciation of that from Fred.”

King spent about seven years researching and writing the first biography of the man so modest that he declined all offers from potential biographers during his lifetime. That surprised King, noting he’s “such an interesting cultural figure in 20th century America.”

King came to know him while heading up the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments from 1999 to 2008. The organization awarded grants for Rogers’ projects and continues to support the Fred Rogers Co.

After King retired a second time in 2008, he was asked to help develop what became The Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College in Rogers’ hometown of Latrobe, Pa. King served as the center’s president from 2008 to 2010, and remains a senior fellow there.

When he finally convinced Rogers’ widow, Joanne Rogers, that a biography needed to be written, she relented, then said King should write it. He accepted the challenge. Joanne and sons Jim and John readily cooperated with the project, and John even talked about how mad his dad was when Joanne discovered the boys were growing marijuana in the basement.

King said they were pleased with the finished book.

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“They felt that it was a very thorough, comprehensive job of looking at his life and his work; that it was fair; that it didn’t sugarcoat his life. I looked at lots of the difficult aspect of his life, but that it was pretty fair and balanced,” he said.

“One of the blessings of the whole process for me is that I’ve got a great, enduring friendship with Joanne Rogers.”

Fred Rogers’ life wasn’t all sunshine and happiness. He was born into family wealth, but was a shy, introverted child who had few friends. Exploring the lesser-known aspects of his youth was “hard but rewarding,” King said, adding that especially interesting was the way money influenced his life.

“He used the family money to give himself independence and to develop his own approach to work,” King said, noting that Rogers was between jobs several times as he finally brought “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” to fruition at age 40.

King isn’t surprised that Rogers’ philosophies continue to resonate with people who are discovering or rediscovering him through the documentary and biography, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the show’s national educational television debut in 1968.

“We live in such a high-pressure, fast-paced, intense and often harsh world today,” King said, “and Fred Rogers is an antidote to that. Fred Rogers ... offers us the opportunity, if we immerse ourselves in his life, to slow down, to be more contemplative, to focus on values like kindness — and I think people really, really respond to that in this particular time in our history.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

IF YOU GO

l What: “A Neighbor Just Like You”: The Music & Message of Fred Rogers

l Where: St. Andrew Presbyterian Church sanctuary, 140 Gathering Place Lane, near the intersection of Melrose Avenue and Highway 218, Iowa City

l When: April 25 to 27

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l Cost: Free; donations accepted; proceeds after expenses donated to Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County

l Documentary screening: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday; popcorn, tissues and child care provided

l Concert: “Beyond the Neighborhood,” 6:30 p.m. Friday; Keri Johnsrud & Kevin Bales Quartet playing from their recent jazz album showcasing music written by Fred Rogers

l Master Class on Jazz Arrangement: 10 a.m. to noon April 27; with members of the Keri Johnsrud & Kevin Bales Quartet; register at Saintandrew-ic.org/events/2019/04/27/jazz-master-class

l Author talk: “Who Is My Neighbor?” 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 27; conversation with Maxwell King, author of “The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers”; child care provided

l Details: saintandrew-ic.org/mr-rogers/

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